February 7, 1996

Millions of Secrets Burden Energy Agency


WASHINGTON -- American makers of nuclear weapons have been classifying virtually everything for so long that the Energy Department now has more secrets than it can cope with, and the department and its contractors may have released information they should have kept secret, officials said Tuesday.

The department has 100 million pages of documents that it wants to review for possible release but does not have the resources to do the reviewing. It is spending $3 million to develop a computer program to scan the documents and make an initial assessment. The goal is to reduce the secrets to a manageable quantity.

"I want to see a moat, if you will, filled with alligators, that separates what really impacts national security from all the chaff," said Albert Narath, the chairman of a committee that drafted a new classification policy.

The management and winnowing of the classified material came up in the context of a news conference today at which, as expected, the department released a comprehensive history of plutonium production and use in the last 50 years.

In the department's current scheme, ideas are "classified at birth," or presumed secret until proved otherwise, and some department officials and employees of contractors have lost track of what needs to be kept quiet.

Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary said Tuesday that most of what was still secret had "occasional mention of something that was perhaps born classified." She said much of that could probably be declassified.

Some material that is still classified is guarding useless secrets but would be useful in defining the environmental and health damage associated with the production and testing of nuclear weapons, Energy Department officials said.

For example, Arlie Bryan Siebert, director of the office of declassification, said that data on fallout were kept secret because they would reveal aspects of weaponry design, like how much of the blast was from fission and how much from fusion, a factor that "no one cares about" anymore.

In contrast, data on releases of radiation from production plants would help an adversary calculate just how much bomb fuel the United States has produced, but Tuesday, Mrs. O'Leary laid all that out on the table.

Other Energy Department documents are classified because they reveal the yield, or destructive power, of certain weapons, but those yields are generally known anyway, said Stanley Norris, an expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Still, Narath said that some categories of information would always be secret, like weapon design, no matter how old. "In the nuclear weapons business, there is no such thing as an obsolete design," he said.

Narath twice raised the possibility that some information had been released improperly, but he declined to say how or give examples. But Charles R. Hansen, an author and specialist on nuclear weapons, said he had recently been surprised when a Freedom of Information Act request brought him information on the materials used in a hydrogen bomb.

"The people doing some of the reviewing really don't know what they're looking at," said Hansen, the author of an eight-volume CD-ROM history of nuclear weapons, "The Swords of Armageddon" (Chukelea Publications).

"They need to unleash a lot of this low-grade stuff, to try to pull back and protect what really needs protecting," he said.

Mrs. O'Leary gave another reason for declassification: to provide the public with information that could be used in deciding what to do with nuclear wastes. The plutonium inventories that the department detailed today will eventually have to be disposed of, she said.

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